delayed, partial justice for Dimock

I live in Broome County in New York’s Southern Tier. My town is on the border with Pennsylvania. During the early years of the fracking boom – technically, horizontal hydraulic fracturing with long laterals or shale gas drilling – I was involved with efforts to keep fracking out of New York and to support our PA neighbors who were being devastated by it. My main role was providing factual comments on articles in the media and reading research and articles to make sure I was accurate and up-to-date.

I also attended rallies, panels, and press events, with a bit of bird-dogging on the side. (Bird-dogging is the practice of showing up in places where a public official is speaking or visiting with signs for your cause in order to increase your visibility with the official and, if you’re lucky, the press. It is not illegal or disruptive.) Through these events, I heard from the people of Dimock, PA, which is about thirty miles south of my home, and their allies about the horrible environmental impacts and suffering that fracking was causing there.

Cabot Oil & Gas was the company that was drilling there at the time. In 2008, they contaminated the water supply but refused to take responsibility for the damage. The elected officials and Department of Environmental Protection did not intervene as they should have. Cabot did settle with some people whose homes were affected but with gag clauses that prevented them from saying anything about the situation, although the fact that some houses were torn down and that the lots were restricted from new construction spoke volumes. Meanwhile, other neighbors continued to live in houses without usable water, their properties basically unsaleable. Cabot was eventually restricted from further drilling in a nine square mile section of Dimock, but the damage had already been done.

Finally, on November 29, 2022, Coterra Energy, which includes what had been Cabot, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor violation of the PA Clean Streams Law, even though they had originally been charged on fifteen counts, including nine felonies. They are ordered to pay $16 million for a water system to bring fresh water to Dimock, which, like many rural towns, has gotten its water from individual water wells. Coterra will also pay the water bills for 75 years for current and future residents.

I found out about the plea from this video by area resident, fracktivist, and citizen-journalist Vera Scroggins. It shows the press conference from the courthouse. The main speaker is Josh Shapiro, current attorney general and governor-elect of Pennsylvania. His office brought the charges against Cabot in 2020, before the merger that formed Coterra. Also speaking is Victoria Switzer, a Dimock resident who has been a leading voice in the cry for justice. After the press conference, Vera includes clips from a rally at the courthouse, featuring more familiar faces and voices from the anti-fracking movement.

I appreciated seeing the people who fought so long and hard for some measure of justice for the affected residents of Dimock, even though it is fourteen years late. As Victoria Switzer pointed out in the news conference, some people have passed away in those years. Others were forced to move out of the area. The fractures among townsfolk may never be mended, as some who had leased their property for drilling became hostile toward those whose water was contaminated because Cabot had to stop drilling and, therefore, paying royalties.

I am sickened to learn this week that, on the same day the plea was entered, the Department of Environmental Protection changed the order regarding gas extraction in the nine square mile area in Dimock. While Coterra may not drill vertically in that area, they are now allowed to drill horizontal laterals into it. These miles-long laterals will be burrowing into the Marcellus shale from vertical wells outside the exclusion zone and then explosive charges will fracture the shale to release fossil methane and potentially other types of hydrocarbons. Theoretically, that methane is then collected from the well for use. In practice, though, some of it also migrates through the rock layers for thousands of feet where it can contaminate aquifers or even reach the surface and cause atmospheric pollution. Additionally, fracking can mobilize radon and other naturally occurring radioactive elements, as well as waste products from the fracking fluids and brine. I am dumbfounded that DEP is risking further pollution in Dimock when so many have already suffered so much.

Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution states, “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.” It’s (past) time for the Pennsylvania government to honor that Constitutional provision.

updates on local environmental stories

I’ve been quiet on the fracking/methane front lately but wanted to give updates on several local issues.

Two Dimock, Pennsylvania families were awarded $4.2 million this week from Cabot for water contamination caused by methane drilling activities. This is a major victory against an industry that nearly always buys its way out of lawsuits and then seals the settlements so that they aren’t held publicly accountable for the pollution they cause. You can read more about the trial and verdict¬†here and here.

The Constitution Pipeline that Williams is planning to build has been delayed another year, which is heartening to those of us fighting expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in New York. ¬†New York hasn’t granted a water quality permit that the company needs to go forward with the project and our attorney general fought back against feeling trees along the proposed route without the permit in place. All trees would have to have been cut down by March 31st to proceed and the company admitted this week that this would not be possible. The reprieve is bittersweet for our Pennsylvania neighbors who have already lost trees to the project, which now won’t be built this year – and may never be built. You can read more about it here, although I will offer the additional information that the Hollleran farm had had their maple trees tapped when the cutting crews accompanied by armed federal marshals arrived and cut down 90% of their sugarbush.

Early in the morning of March 7, Bill McKibben and 56 others, including three friends of mine, were arrested for blockading an entrance to the Crestwood site near Watkins Glen, New York, and Seneca Lake. Crestwood is already storing some hydrocarbons in old salt mine caverns and wants permission to open more caverns, despite known intersecting faults and prior history of cavern roof collapse and leaks. You can read more about that here.

Many of us are still deluging Governor Cuomo with calls and emails to try to stop further build-out of fossil fuels and double down on our renewable energy and efficiency options instead. It’s still a long haul, but we are grateful for any moves in the sustainable direction.

 

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